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Biden administration draws Palestinians close, Israel closer

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(JTA) Statements and appearances by United States (US) officials suggest the Biden administration’s emerging Middle East strategy, namely reassuring Israel while resuming ties with the Palestinians ruptured by President Joe Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump.

On Tuesday, 26 January, the acting ambassador to the United Nations (UN) outlined plans to reverse the Trump administration’s policies concerning the Palestinians.

“The Biden administration will restore credible US engagement with Palestinians as well as Israelis,” Richard Mills said at a meeting of the UN Security Council, the first such appearance since Biden’s 20 January inauguration.

Mills, a career diplomat, is acting as UN envoy until the Senate confirms Biden’s nominee.

“This will involve renewing US relations with the Palestinian leadership and Palestinian people, relations which have atrophied over the past four years,” Mills said. “President Biden has been clear in his intent to restore US assistance programmes that support economic development and humanitarian aid for the Palestinian people, and to take steps to reopen diplomatic missions that were closed by the last US administration.”

Reassurance came on Wednesday, when Biden’s nominee for UN ambassador told senators that she would maintain some of the pro-Israel policies advanced by Trump.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield said at her confirmation hearing that America would robustly push back against anti-Israel bias at the UN.

“I look forward to standing with Israel, standing against the unfair targeting of Israel, the relentless resolutions that are proposed against Israel unfairly,” she said.

Her remarks recalled one of the final acts of the Obama administration, when it allowed a Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s settlement policies. The Senate roundly condemned President Barack Obama’s failure to veto the resolution. Trump’s UN ambassadors went on to use US influence to nix pro-Palestinian moves at the body.

Biden has indicated that he wants to repair ties between Israel and Democrats strained by tensions between the administrations of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama. Notably, some of the most pointed pro-Israel questions at Thomas-Greenfield’s hearing came from Democrats who are close to Biden like Chris Coons of Delaware, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Ben Cardin of Maryland.

There remain more differences between the Biden and Netanyahu administrations than there were under Trump, but Biden is striving to tamp down Israeli anxieties about his revival of some Obama-era policies when he served as vice-president. For instance, Biden wants to return to the Iran nuclear deal, which Netanyahu reviles, but says he will do so in consultation with Israel. Obama cut out Israel until the last phase of the negotiations.

Biden campaigned on restoring ties with the Palestinians, but it won’t be easy to reverse Trump’s policies, which included shutting down diplomatic relations and severing assistance to the Palestinian Authority. Biden must deal with a law passed by Congress that denies funding for the Palestinians as long as the Palestinian Authority pays families of Palestinians who killed Israeli and American civilians. Another law makes it hard for a president to allow the Palestinians to reopen an office in Washington unless the Palestinian Authority agrees not to seek charges against Israel in the International Criminal Court.

Trump also shut down a dedicated consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem. Reopening that office could face resistance from the Israeli government and the municipality.

At the same time, Biden officials are seeking to reassure Israel that they will sustain some of the tone and substance of changes carried out under Trump.

In one of his first statements Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, described his first conversation with his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben Shabbat. They “discussed opportunities to enhance the partnership over the coming months, including by building on the success of Israel’s normalisation arrangements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco,” Sullivan said.

Thomas-Greenfield said she would build on the normalisation agreements – called the Abraham Accords – to encourage those countries to change their approach at the UN and take an active role in countering anti-Israel actions there.

“If they’re going to recognise Israel in the Abraham Accords, they need to recognise Israel at the UN,” she said.

Thomas-Greenfield also denounced the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel.

“The actions and the approach that BDS has taken toward Israel is unacceptable,” she said. “It verges on antisemitism, and it’s important that it not be allowed to have a voice at the UN.”

The Obama administration also opposed BDS, but unlike the Trump administration, didn’t make it a front-and-centre issue, nor did it compare the movement to antisemitism.

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Dutch confectioner engages in some Jewish ‘cookie washing’

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(JTA) In Dutch supermarkets, no cookie aisle is fully stocked without a national treat called jodenkoeken – shortbread discs whose Dutch name means “Jew cookies”.

Exactly how jodenkoeken (also spelled jodekoeken) got their name is unclear, but they have been a feature of Dutch teatime since at least the 19th century.

Whatever the etymology, Dutch Jews don’t seem to mind having a cookie named after them.

“I know it sounds strange to Americans, but there’s never been an issue around jodenkoeken,” said Ronny Naftaniel, who led Dutch Jewry’s watchdog group on antisemitism for 37 years before becoming vice-chairperson of the Central Jewish Board of the Netherlands a decade ago.

Things changed on Friday, 19 February, when the company behind the Netherlands’ oldest and best-known jodenkoeken brands announced that it was changing the cookie’s name in a bid to “help create a more inclusive society”.

Patisserie Pater wrote on its website that the Davelaar-brand jodenkoeken will be called odekoeken – Dutch for “ode cookies”.

Meanwhile, several other companies also manufacture jodenkoeken, and one, Lotus Bakeries, said on Saturday that it was considering changing the name too.

The name change comes at a time when companies the world over are assessing their product lines to ensure that they are culturally appropriate, a reckoning that is hitting the food world hard. And the Netherlands, where the Dutch Christmastime tradition of wearing blackface is a matter of open debate, does feature a few desserts with names that have drawn criticism for being insensitive.

But Dutch Jews say they didn’t see any reason for jodenkoeken to get a new name.

“Davelaar can of course name their products as they please, but jodenkoeken really isn’t something I’m offended by, and I don’t know of anyone who is,” said Ronit Palache, a 36-year-old Dutch-Jewish journalist and author who said she detected “woke overzealousness” in Patisserie Pater’s decision.

“When you start making corrections no one needs or asks for, you’re just creating resistance and friction over nothing,” she said.

How the cookies got their name isn’t known, but there are several theories, according to Jonah Freud, who published a book in 2012 about Dutch-Jewish cuisine.

Under one theory, the jodenkoeken’s simple recipe – they require only butter, flour and sugar – was created by a non-Jewish baker whose last name was “De Jode”. But that man, if he existed, has never been identified.

Another theory, Freud said, holds that an unnamed Amsterdam Jew sold the original recipe to Lotus Bakeries, which made it famous.

According to a third theory, the biscuits were named jodenkoeken because of their simplicity at a time when many Amsterdam Jews were poor.

“But then they have lots and lots of sugar, more than other cookies, which would have been a luxury product in the 19th century, so they weren’t your typical poor people’s food at all,” Freud said.

A fourth hypothesis is that the cookies were introduced by Sephardic Jews who travelled on shipping lines that connected Northern Europe with the Iberian Peninsula’s Bay of Biscay. Advocates for this theory point to the fact that some parts of Norway and Denmark also have a very similar pastry called jodekaker in Norwegian and Danish, while Iceland has a sugarless variant called gyðingakökur, all of which are far less popular and well known than jodenkoeken are in the Netherlands.

Whatever their origin, Freud said, “Everybody likes jodenkoek in the Netherlands and beyond. So why would we Jews want to distance ourselves from such a tasty treat?”

Many Dutch Jews have jodenkoeken stories. Palache recalled laughing when a former boyfriend, who wasn’t Jewish, brought home jodenkoeken. It was the first time she had them in her home.

Barry Mehler, a New York-born Jewish Amsterdammer and organiser of the city’s main annual Chanukah concert, also bought jodenkoeken for laughs once to give as a gift to a Jewish colleague from abroad. Asked to explain the joke, Mehler said, “What’s to analyse? It’s just comical. A Jew giving Jew cookies to another Jew.”

“They’re cookie-washing the jodenkoeken is what they’re doing,” Mehler said.

Dutch Jews haven’t always been so nonchalant about desserts named for them.

Naftaniel said he received dozens of complaints in 2005 when he was heading the antisemitism watchdog group from Jews about the reintroduction of a discontinued candy called jodenvet (Jew fat). The name is offensive because it “makes people think about grilling Jews”, Naftaniel said at the time. He said then that jodenkoeken did not carry any problematic connotations. The candy was renamed “chest honey” following the protest.

More recently, Dutch confectioners changed other desserts’ names. One product, a marshmallow-cream cake coated with chocolate, was called negerzoen (Negro kiss). It now goes by just Kisses. (The cookie is a lot like an Israeli Krembo.) And the chain store HEMA, something of a Dutch Target, last year renamed moorkope (moors’ heads) as chocolate balls.

Black Dutch advocates pressed for changing the negerzoen name. Many Dutch Jews, including Palache and Mehler, also found that name inappropriate.

Patisserie Pater, which makes Davelaar, said it wasn’t responding to any outside pressure around jodenkoeken when it changed the name.

Max Moszkowicz, a Dutch-Jewish filmmaker and radio presenter, said he appreciated Patisserie Pater’s attempt to support Jews.

“But it’s unnecessary and unfortunate,” Moszkowicz, 39, said. “Because finally there’s something named for the Jews that’s nice and that everyone likes, and they take it away from us to be politically correct.”

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Fertile rumour about vaccines scares Orthodox

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(JTA) For much of the past year, the young mothers of Lakewood, New Jersey, have experienced the pandemic as much as a nuisance as a matter of life and death.

That’s not to say the community hasn’t experienced its share of outbreaks; it has. Or that families haven’t lost loved ones; they have. But to hear the young mothers of the large Orthodox community tell it, the crisis part of the pandemic had passed. And to watch the Instagram videos of the frequent indoor weddings held in the town, where few if any guests wear masks, the dark days of last March were nearly forgotten.

That has changed in recent weeks, as news of the death of a 37-year-old woman understood to be previously healthy swept through WhatsApp groups at the same time that misinformation took hold about the new coronavirus vaccines potentially threaten fertility. In a community where childbearing and mothering are marks of status among women, the two developments brought the pandemic’s seriousness home for many of the town’s young mothers.

Now, as physicians there and across the Orthodox world mount a campaign to convince women to get vaccinated when they’re eligible and be more careful if they’re not, some mothers in Lakewood are reconsidering their families’ approach to COVID-19 safety.

Lakewood, with a haredi Orthodox community that makes up more than half the town’s population of more than 100 000, is by far New Jersey’s most fertile town. In 2015, it recorded 45 live births per 1 000 residents – a rate more than four times the state average and among the highest in the world. So when rumours started circulating about the effect of the soon-to-arrive COVID-19 vaccines on fertility, locals were alarmed.

The rumours began right around the time New Jersey began offering vaccines, and they took root on Instagram and WhatsApp.

In one WhatsApp group organised by Orthodox Jews to discuss COVID-19, a woman said she had been thinking of moving to Israel, but was reconsidering after the mayor of the Israeli city of Lod said he would require parents to be vaccinated before their children could come to school.

In another group, women compared Israel’s recommendation that pregnant women get the vaccine to Nazi doctors’ torture of Jews. “Disgusting! They are really making experimentation on Jews!” one woman wrote.

Several shared information about a drug cocktail created by a Hasidic doctor, Vladimir Zelenko, that Donald Trump touted but was later found to be ineffective and even harmful in some cases. Someone else shared a video of Zelenko in which he said that young healthy people don’t need to get the vaccine. He suggested taking zinc to inhibit “viral replication” and said “in my medical opinion, no one needs the vaccine”.

In early January, Michal Weinstein, an Orthodox Instagram influencer who lives on Long Island and has more than 21 000 followers, posted an Instagram livestream of Dr Lawrence Palevsky, a paediatrician and well-known anti-vaxxer who spoke at a 2019 symposium of anti-vaccine activists that was attended by hundreds of haredi Orthodox Jews in Monsey, New York. In the video, Palevsky suggested that the vaccines were a profit move by drug companies and that they could contribute to infertility.

Tova Herskovitz, a 30-year-old mother of four living in Tom’s River, New Jersey, a large Orthodox community neighbouring Lakewood, said many of her friends were confused about the vaccine.

“It’s scary to know that there are women who are saying whatever they want about this vaccine,” she said, noting that Instagram influencers popular in the Orthodox community have spread misinformation. “A lot of my friends follow these people.”

Dr Mark Kirschenbaum, a paediatrician with a practice in Borough Park and Williamsburg, both Hasidic communities where weddings and other social events resumed their pre-pandemic pace months ago, said he thinks about 20% of his patient families are “vaccine sceptical”. Most vaccinate their children for other diseases because of school requirements, but the COVID-19 vaccines are optional if you can get one at all.

To combat this, Orthodox healthcare professionals are turning their attention to building confidence in the new vaccines.

The Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association, an organisation for Orthodox women doctors and medical students, has been debunking misinformation in a fact sheet and podcast that it produces. And a group of Orthodox Jewish nurses are hosting a weekly call to discuss the vaccines to take place on hotlines that are accessible to women who don’t use the internet for religious reasons.

Orthodox doctors said they’ve been getting dozens of phone calls about the safety of vaccines over the past two months, many with questions about whether the vaccines are safe for young women or women who are already pregnant.

“If somebody asks me, I absolutely recommend that they take it,” said Rabbi Dr Aaron Glatt, the chief of infectious diseases and hospital epidemiologist at Mount Sinai South Nassau on Long Island. “You’re dealing with a real risk of dying or having serious complications from COVID-19 versus a theoretical risk when there’s no real theoretical reason why it should be dangerous.

“There is zero evidence to suggest there’s any risk with infertility.”

Some cite changing guidance from health authorities as a cause of confusion.

The new coronavirus vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna haven’t been tested on pregnant women, leading the World Health Organization (WHO) originally to advise that only pregnant women who were at high risk for complications from COVID-19 get vaccinated. But over time, consensus has emerged that pregnancy itself represents a risk factor, and the WHO has changed its advice, though it still doesn’t advise the vaccine for all pregnant women and recommends that women speak to their doctors. New Jersey includes pregnancy in a list of conditions entitling people to early vaccines. New York just added it as well.

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OP-EDS

Coronavirus vaccines have arrived – will this rescue us?

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After a great deal of public clamour, media noise, and anxious expectations, the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines have finally arrived. What can we expect?

Undoubtedly, we have in vaccines one of the most powerful weapons to combat disease. It has been said that, other than the provision of clean water, vaccines have done more for public health than any other intervention.

One only needs to look at the eradication of smallpox, the near eradication of polio, and the drastic reduction of many infectious diseases – which almost all of our young doctors of today have never seen, such as polio and diphtheria and even measles – to marvel at the power of vaccines.

Unfortunately, but realistically, we cannot have the same expectation for COVID-19 vaccines. Viruses like measles and polio behave themselves and maintain their respective vaccine targets. Not so the COVID-19 coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Here, we have a far wilier opponent.

Truth be told, we didn’t expect this virus to be as changeable as it is. (The genome, the total genetic structure of this virus, is a long piece of RNA, unlike the fragments of the influenza virus, and also unlike the mutable reverse transcription mechanism of the HIV virus.)

It did indeed surprise us, for it didn’t take long for its many mutations to appear. Surprise turned to anxiety when it became apparent that some of these mutations were positioned in critical parts of its structure, that very part of the virus which is targeted by the immune defensive response following infection or vaccination.

Fortunately, our immune system and our immune responses to infection are more complex than merely making antibodies, and vaccines may still work in spite of worrying signals coming from the laboratory. However, what it does tell us is that we cannot presume that what you find with many other vaccines will similarly apply to controlling COVID-19.

Nevertheless, there are two factors in our favour in dealing with the challenges of this virus. First, there is our science of vaccinology. The development of vaccines and understanding of how they work is now advanced and sophisticated. So much so that the necessary adjustments to the vaccine needed to meet the changing of the virus’ targets can be done quite effortlessly and relatively quickly.

Second, and fortunately for us, as contagious as the virus is especially in certain superspreading settings, its infectivity is considerably less than (say) measles, and the herd immunity threshold is correspondingly lower.

So, what does all this mean with regard to planning how vaccines will be used to control the epidemic? The rollout will basically be structured into two parts. The aim of the first part, consisting of two phases, is to protect those most at risk of being infected. The highest priority of these will be healthcare workers, who will be the first phase. The most vulnerable of society will be in phase two – the elderly, those with underlying illnesses (comorbidities), key personnel for the running of the country, and people living in crowded or congregate environments.

Attention can then be turned to part two, to reach as many of the rest of the adult population in order to achieve herd immunity. Children aren’t currently approved to receive the vaccine.

What do we hope the vaccine will achieve? We cannot expect it to do what the polio vaccine did for polio or the measles vaccine for measles. What we do want to see, however, is a future which avoids the healthcare system, hospitals, and healthcare workers, from being swamped, as we experienced during the first and second waves.

We will want to return to our pre-COVID-19 lives, without the restrictions, without the masks, and having functions and celebrations as before.

This will certainly not happen as soon as the vaccination kicks off. It didn’t happen in the United Kingdom, the first country to commence population immunisation. In fact, two months after commencing its rollout, the United Kingdom is in the midst of a second wave considerably more severe than the first wave, and necessitating the strictest of lockdowns.

Until herd immunity is reached, we will still need to continue strict adherence to non-pharmaceutical interventions while the vaccines do their work. That target will take many months and beyond the year to reach.

The COVID-19 pandemic will go away and vaccines will certainly play a major role together with human behaviour. The virus won’t disappear. The only virus that has ever been eradicated is smallpox.

What we are hoping for in the post-COVID-19 era is a virus which will no longer be totally new to the human population. In history, it has been those viruses introduced into totally naïve and therefore totally susceptible populations, causing so-called virgin-soil epidemics, which have devastated populations. (Measles and smallpox introduced by European invaders in the 16th century to the native populations of the Americas resulted in catastrophic epidemics, wiping out major portions of indigenous populations.) When COVID-19 is no longer new and the virus no longer meets a totally susceptible human population, immunity from vaccines and past infections will produce barriers to stop the spread of the virus.

In the future, there may well be spikes of COVID-19 respiratory infections, hopefully much more trivial, which we will come to tolerate. This will be much like we do for their coronavirus cousins, which are responsible for our annual winter colds, along with many other viruses.

Perhaps some lessons of hygiene practices may continue to be part of our everyday lives. We may well even adopt some of the cultural practices so common in the Far East, like wearing masks in public places when we have a cold, or hand-hygiene practices.

We will come out of this miserable pandemic, but the more conscientious we are about maintaining our non-pharmaceutical interventions to assist the work of vaccines, the sooner that day will come.

  • Professor Barry Schoub is the Chair of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 vaccines. He is emeritus professor in virology at the University of the Witwatersrand, and the former director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

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